Television was the clock of my generation. We passed our childhood in a blur of half-hour programs and 30-second commercials; we told time by the six o’clock news and the 4:30 movie. Television occupied our attention, though it left our minds unattended, and the hours flowed by almost imperceptibly.
During those same years, in the ’60s and ’70s, Nam June Paik was standing television on its head. He didn’t fear the medium’s mindlessness—he reveled in it. His Guggenheim retrospective, organized by John Hanhardt with the assistance of Jon Ippolito, reveals an artist whose formal interventions, wit, madcap energy, and underlying melancholy unearthed television’s spiritual dimension and subversive potential.
One hundred upturned, flashing video monitors currently occupy the Guggenheim’s lobby. Screens placed at intervals along Frank Lloyd Wright’s ascending spiral display some of the same frenetic, pulsating imagery: a choir singing Handel’s Messiah, dancers performing on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, George Plimpton, Lou Reed, Dick Cavett. Meanwhile, a green laser beam zigzags through a seven-story waterfall tumbling from ceiling to atrium floor, and lasers project twirling, multicolored forms onto a scrim over the ceiling’s oculus.
Too much for you? Well, it’s supposed to be. Modulation in Sync, the new, four-part installation that Paik designed for this exhibition, makes Wright’s spiritual geometries spectacularly visible. The effect is something like Times Square at night—all-out sensory overload, a rush of images impossible to grasp in their entirety. But there’s also a hint of transcendence in the jagged ladder of light that points skyward.
Born in Seoul in 1932, the youngest of six children in a bourgeois Korean househould, Paik moved with his family to Hong Kong and then to Tokyo, where he studied musical composition. But it was in Europe and in New York (where he arrived in 1964 and still lives) that he found his true calling, amid the antics of the radical anti-art collective Fluxus, and under the influence of John Cage and Josef Beuys. From Cage he learned to fashion an art that leaned heavily on silence, emptiness, and the surprise of chance encounters; from Beuys he took the idea of social sculpture and extended it to television, postwar culture’s most powerful weapon of conformity.
Three Elements, a recent installation produced in collaboration with laser expert Norman Ballard, occupies the first side gallery. Triangular, circular, and square chambers are set into the walls; within each form, motorized lasers, refracted and reflected in smoke and mirrors, create symphonies of light and movement. They don’t seem to mean much; the churning circle, for example, brings to mind a washing machine’s front window. But, like breathing exercises or heartbeats, their automatic motion is strangely soothing and meditative.
Despite its technical sophistication, much of Paik’s work depends for its effect on supreme naïveté—for the art world, he’s both computer nerd and village idiot. In Candle TV (1975), the first of several iconic pieces on display from the ’60s and ’70s (many of which have been reconfigured for this exhibition), a taper burns in a television’s empty shell. This marriage of ancient and modern technology, of spiritual and commercial illumination, is a visual one-liner, but it resonates further along the ramp with One Candle (Candle Projection) (1988). There, a burning candle whose image is refracted through closed-circuit video casts multicolored shadows across four galleries, creating a flickering evocation of mortality.
Real Fish/Live Fish (1982) consists of two vintage televisions that have been disemboweled. One is filled with water, live fish, and wavering plants; on the other, a simultaneous image of the same fish is projected in closed-circuit video. Is it any wonder that the real fish seem slightly less fascinating than their video counterparts? The robotic sets, with their rounded screens looming like enormous, one-eyed heads, add to our sense of the medium’s parasitical quality.
There’s a particular pathos to the hollowed-out shells of old technologies, which Paik also uses in his Family of Robot series—anthropomorphic sculptures made of old radios, TV sets, and broadcasting monitors. Still, these relatively static works are less exciting than the installations which invest technology with the proliferating energy and manic anarchy of nature. That union is marvelously brought to life in TV Garden (1974), a lush, sprawling display of live greenery that serves as a bed for some 30 video monitors. These play a compilation tape meant to evoke (in the artist’s words) “the video landscape of tomorrow,” which includes footage of Allen Ginsberg playing finger cymbals and a tap dancer whose image dissolves in psychedelic colors.
The top-floor galleries display archival materials, including the remains of several Fluxus performances: a shattered violin, a mutilated typewriter. There are interactive television and audio sculptures, tapes of Paik’s musical compositions and experimental broadcasts. And a small section is devoted to the works he composed for Charlotte Moorman, the classically trained cellist and avant-garde muse who was his frequent collaborator. Paik had Moorman play the cello with little televisions strapped to her chest, or topless (she got arrested for that one). He made her perform on an instrument made of video monitors or holding his own body like a cello and bowing a single string drawn tightly across it. In all his emotionally chilly oeuvre, these works are his most fragile and humanly compelling.